It has been six months since the Ethiopian government launched a military operation against the regional Tigray People’s Liberation Front, TPLF, on November 4th 2020, after weeks of rising political tensions. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared a state of emergency and all communication to and from the region was stopped. Phone lines were disabled and a forced internet blackout was put in place, which has still not been restored to this day. At the end of November, the Prime Minister announced the end of the intervention and proclaimed that the Ethiopian army had captured the regional capital of Mekelle “without the large-scale civilian casualties and war crimes that so many in the international community confidently predicted.”

Yet, as of today, countless civilians are left without food and functioning health care, and prognoses are not promising. What started as a political dispute between local and national forces in Tigray in Northern Ethiopia has been developing into a serious humanitarian crisis for millions of people. This article will explore the reasons behind this crisis, and portraits the everyday life and experiences of Girmay, an ordinary Tigrayan citizen. 

War crimes and the role of Eritrea in the conflict

Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).

The supposedly quick military intervention from last November has – up until today and according to the UN – led to 4.5 million people being in urgent need for lifesaving assistance. As fighting continues, reports of cruel massacres and rape have started to emerge, often committed by Eritrean troops who got involved in the conflict. Reasons for this lie in the past, as Eritrea’s president Isaias Afewerki has had a long-lasting grudge against the TPLF, the former governing party in Ethiopia. The two countries were involved in a devastating border war from 1998-2000, and only in 2018 was a peace agreement signed, an act that made Abiy Ahmed the Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 2019. Now, Eritrea has become an important ally in the Tigray crisis for Prime Minister Abiy’s government to further weaken the TPLF. 

In March 2020, after months of denial, Abiy Ahmed admitted the presence of Eritrean forces in the region and promised their withdrawal. Yet, there is no proof of these troops leaving, and the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate, with alleged abuses committed by Eritrean soldiers. Investigations of these atrocities are difficult due to a lack of information and access to Tigray, especially to rural, mountainous areas. The Perspective had the opportunity to talk to Girmay, a Tigrayan who works as a tour guide and has witnessed this unfolding disaster every day. He reflects on the crisis and speaks about immediate measures that have to be taken to prevent a worsening of the situation. 

TP: In the last few months, global organisations have been reporting a lot about war crimes and atrocities that took place in Tigray. Can you tell us about your experiences, and what you have been witnessing?

G: I can tell you that the war is not over as many say, and fighting is ongoing, especially around the mountains in rural Tigray. The main target are the innocent people who are living in the villages, who don’t know what’s going on and who don’t care about politics. Their only goal is to care for their family, cattle and land, and now all of their possessions are destroyed and burned down as I could see with my own eyes, mainly by the Eritrean soldiers. These soldiers steal the animals and kill children in front of their parents. And they rape women in a crucial way, young and old women. I don’t have any words for that, you can’t imagine. Besides, the Eritrean soldiers destroyed many historical and religious sites such as rock churches which are more than 1000 years old. They don’t know the value of these places and buildings they destroyed, and monks and nuns who lived there have been brutally killed. 

A farmhouse before the conflict in Gheralta, one of the many historical sites in Tigray and a place with many ancient rock churches which got destroyed in the war (Photo: Mirjam Zehnder, 2015)

TP: You live in a city where heavy fighting is no longer taking place and where life has become close to normal. In what way are you affected by the conflict?

G: Life hasn’t been easy, not just because of the conflict. We had a big locust invasion in the last two years, then the pandemic came and as a tour guide, I didn’t have work any longer. And now all this political invasion happened. We don’t have transportation between towns and villages, we can’t see our families who live in another place, and there is often no electricity. In addition, the phone network is only partially working, and internet services have been switched off since November. I have some friends who work for NGOs, so I can use their WiFi sometimes.

TP: What would you say is most important to prevent an even more deteriorating crisis?

G: First, the people need to be able to go back to their homes. The rainy season starts soon, and this is the time where the farmers sow their crop and take care of their farmland. Right now, so many people are displaced and cannot go home due to reasons I mentioned before. So, in that sense, the killing, raping and the resulting hunger is used as a war weapon. If the farmers can’t sow their crop in the next three months, the next year will be challenging with starvation and even more poverty. If they can’t farm, the people of Tigray are in serious danger. Another problem is that there are no available medical centres for the population of the rural areas, because most of them were destroyed. Health assistance has to be made available for everybody, otherwise it can get critical.

Protests by the Tigrayan diaspora with the Tigrayan flag in New York to raise awareness of the crisis (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

TP: And what actions have to be taken by the international community?

G: For people outside of Ethiopia, it is difficult to get accurate information of what is going on right now. Additionally, due to the pandemic many have to worry about their own situation at home. So, we deal with it ourselves, at the moment. But the global society has to know what is happening and more access to reliable information is needed. So far, people only hear from the government media which is spreading a lot of fake news. After more than six months into the crisis, the international community needs to understand what is going on.

The good thing is, there are humanitarian organisations in the region, such as the World Food Programme, and thanks to them we get a little bit of help. But they are also endangered by the Eritrean soldiers, so they have to withdraw their staff. The main problem is that the Ethiopian government let these things happen, and they don’t grant access to the region to properly help the people. Three months ago, Abiy said that he will make the Eritrean troops go back to Eritrea, but I can see the opposite. It’s a golden opportunity for them to take revenge because the history between Ethiopia and Eritrea is a complicated one. But what we expect from the Prime Minister is that he makes the area accessible, keeps Eritrea out of the region, and ensures a functioning communication. And maybe the international community can help to persuade him. Because if it continues as if the situation is for now, the Tigrayans will face a huge challenge in the near future. 

Mirjam Zehnder